Red Tape Literature in Public Administration

September 17, 2022

Download this Insight (PDF)

People often refer to “red tape” to mean cumbersome and unnecessary government burdens, but there’s an extensive public administration literature on the subject. This Insight reviews that literature.

I. Administrative Burdens and Red Tape

A widespread source of administrative costs stems from the ubiquitous presence of “red tape” in regulatory compliance. Most empirical work on red tape is grounded in Bozeman’s (1993) definition of organizational red tape, which include “rules, regulations, and procedures that remain in force and entail a compliance burden for the organization but have no efficacy for the rules’ functional object.” Bozeman (1993, 284) also identified another form of red tape, stakeholder red tape, which includes rules that “serve no object valued by a given stakeholder group.” Additionally, this (now seminal) article established several other theoretical concepts including: a distinction in the origin of red tape (i.e., internal vs external production) (273), several categories of organizational red tape based on rules’ origin and target (e.g., ordinary red tape, pass-through red tape, interorganizational red tape, external control red tape) (284), and a discussion of various potential causes of red tape (286). With regard to the causes of red tape, he distinguished between “rule-inception red tape” (285-286) or “rules born bad” (i.e., not created to achieve a legitimate purpose) and “rule-evolved red tape” (287) or “good rules gone bad” (i.e., created to serve an originally legitimate purpose but evolved over time into red tape).

Finally, Bozeman (1993, 279) posited that any definition of red tape needs to carefully distinguish it from instruments covered by the literature on formalization—focused on “rules and procedures, without…assuming any negative implications or impacts.” Pandey and Scott (2002) also posited that efforts to operationalize red tape needed to carefully avoid conflating these bodies of research. Relatedly, Pandey and Kingsley (2000) proposed the use of a different definition—albeit based on Bozeman’s general framing—pointing out that operationalizing the original definition was problematic due to the implicit useful/useless dichotomy required to classify a procedure as red tape (Pandey, Pandey, and Van Ryzin 2017). This definition highlighted the link between managers’ perceptions of procedures and observed outcomes.[1] Turaga and Bozeman (2005) offer yet another definition: “burdensome administrative rules and procedures that have negative effects on the organization’s performance.”

Building on the established role of stakeholder perception, Dehart-Davis (2009b, 901) engaged in grounded theory development to propose a categorization of effective rules—“Green Tape”—that confirms that “stakeholder perceptions of organizational rules…matter[s] because they alter the extent of cooperation in rule implementation.” Most recently, a broader but related, construct: “administrative burden” is used by scholars to identify areas of policy implementation that result in “onerous experiences” for citizens—usually in the delivery of public services (Herd and Moynihan, 2018; Moynihan, Herd, and Rigby, 2016, 498). Notably, these authors trace their inquiry to Bozeman’s original observations about “rules born bad”—finding that administrative burdens often function as de facto barriers to citizens’ ability to receive government services (i.e., a citizen-focused experience of red tape).

Bozeman (2012) offered the concept of “multidimensional red tape” as a necessary expansion to existing, narrowly constructed definitions “if red tape research is to [continue making] a contribution” (253). He posits that earlier/narrower definitions of red tape were valuable because they helped this area of scholarship flourish—particularly by setting it apart from the formalization literature. Bozeman suggests that the subject-dependent aspect of red tape is still valuable but that “rules and regulations may be pathological in some elements and not others, even with respect to the same stakeholder…” (Bozeman 2012).

Continue reading this article...


[1] Pandey and Kingsley (2000, 782) defined red tape as “impressions on the part of managers that formalization (in the form of burdensome rules and procedures) is detrimental to the organization.”